Ergothioneine: A New Vitamin?

NF-Apr2 Ergothioneine: A New Vitamin?
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Ergothioneine was discovered a century ago but ignored until recently when researchers found that we have a transporter protein in our bodies specifically designed to pull it out of our diets and into our tissues. This suggests that it plays some important physiological role, but what does it do? Well our first clue was the tissue distribution. Ergothioneine concentrates in parts of our body where there’s lots of oxidative stress—the lens of our eye and the liver, as well as  sensitive areas such as bone marrow and seminal fluid. Researchers guessed that it might function as a so-called “cytoprotectant,” a cell protector, and that’s indeed what was subsequently found.

Not only does ergothioneine get into the nucleus of our cells to protect our DNA, it can get into our mitochondria, the power plants of the cell. Ergothioneine appears to function as a potent intra-mitochondrial antioxidant. Why is that important?  In my 5-min. video Mitochondrial Theory of Aging I quote one of the greatest biochemists of all time:

“Aging is a disease. The human lifespan simply reflects the level of free radical damage that accumulates in cells. When enough damage accumulates, cells can’t survive properly anymore and they just simply give up.”

First proposed in 1972, the Mitochondrial Theory of Aging suggests that it’s free radical damage to our cells’ power source that leads to a loss of cellular energy and function over time. It’s a little like charging your iPod battery over and over again; every time you charge it the capacity gets less and less.

In my Stopping Cancer Before it Starts DVD, I go into detail about the quantum biology of oxidative phosphorylation, but in a nutshell the oxygen we breathe may get ahold of an electron we ate that was pumped with energy by plants (thanks to photosynthesis). The oxygen molecule is thereby transformed into what’s called superoxide, which can damage (oxidize) our delicate cellular machinery. Basically we’re rusting—that’s what rust is, the oxidation of metal. Scientifically, aging has been considered the slow oxidation of our bodies. Like those brown age spots on the back of your hands? That’s just oxidized fat under the skin. Oxidant stress is why we get wrinkles, it’s why we lose some of our memory, and it’s why our organ systems break down as we get older.

How do we slow down oxidation? By eating foods containing anti-oxidants. If you want to know if a food has a lot of antioxidants in it simply slice it open, expose it to air—expose it to oxygen–and see what happens. Does it oxidize? Does it turn brown? Think about our two most popular fruits: apples and bananas. They turn brown right away; not a lot of antioxidants inside there. How do you keep your fruit salad from turning brown though? Add lemon juice, which has vitamin C in it, an antioxidant, that can keep your food from oxidizing and may do the same thing inside our bodies.

For an introduction on where antioxidants can be found in our diet, see Antioxidant Content of 3,139 Foods and Antioxidant Power of Plant Foods Versus Animal Foods.

Here’s the catch: many antioxidants can’t penetrate through the mitochondrial membrane into the mitochondria. They can protect the rest of the cell including our DNA, but they can’t get access into the power plants of our cells and therefore may be helpless to slow down the aging process. Ergothioneine, however, is allowed access into our mitochondria. Where is it found in the diet? Mushrooms! Check out my 3-min. video Ergothioneine: A New Vitamin?.

Other examples of the magic of mushrooms can be found in:

Probably best to cook them though, see Toxins in Raw Mushrooms?

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image credit: artizone / Flickr

  • Love it! What’s the best way to cook, say, Maitake mushrooms? Or is raw better?

    • Thea

      Rob: I don’t know about the best way to cook mushrooms (in terms of from a health perspective), but I can offer you two thoughts:

      1) Dr. Greger definitely recommends that you cook mushrooms before eating them. He has a link to the relevant video in the post above where you can learn why cooked is healthier.

      2) On a tip for how to cook: I like to cook mushrooms in the microwave. It is super-fast and the mushrooms come out great. You can put them in “naked”. I find that the mushrooms cook just fine without water or anything added.

      Hope that helps.

  • Thea

    I totally forgot about this video (re: Ergothioneine)! Thanks a bunch for bringing this to my attention again. Something about this posting helped me to absorb the information much better this time.

    This idea is so, so cool. I’ve been happily eating more mushrooms because of your various videos about the health of mushrooms (plus I just like them). But to understand this potential mechanism for how mushrooms might help us fight cancer, that’s really neat.

  • I am allergic to mushrooms :( any suggestions?!?

    • Hi Kristin, Unfortunately some folks have allergies or insensitivities to certain plants. The best path is to avoid the offending agent. Good luck.

  • Bushea

    Is the ergothioneine content higher in wild mushrooms than in commercially grown mushrooms? Dr. Greger said that ergothioneine was produced by an organism present in the soil. Are mushrooms that arise from mycelial mats in the soil higher in ergothioneine than mushrooms that grow from mycelia that infect trees? Or are mushrooms grown from commercially used sterilized non-soil mediums less potent than either of those? Thanks.